Clearwater taking bids for developers to build on downtown bluff

The city hopes to select one or multiple developers by April 30 to build residential, retail and hotel projects on three sites around the Imagine Clearwater site.
The city released a request for proposals on Jan. 11 for developers to submit bids to build residential, retail and hotel projects on three city-owned sites on the downtown waterfront.
The city released a request for proposals on Jan. 11 for developers to submit bids to build residential, retail and hotel projects on three city-owned sites on the downtown waterfront. [ City of Clearwater ]
Published Jan. 19, 2021|Updated Jan. 19, 2021

CLEARWATER — On paper, the three city-owned properties on the downtown bluff make up what could be a real estate venture unparalleled in Tampa Bay.

They overlook the Intracoastal waterway. They’re a couple of miles across a bridge from one of the nation’s top ranked beaches. Amid the reality of climate change and rising seas, they are perched well above the federal flood zone.

The properties connect to the 22-acre downtown waterfront, where the city is set to break ground in early spring on Imagine Clearwater, a $64 million makeover with a green space, a concert venue, gardens, a playground and a walking trail — a project that aims to bring long-term vibrancy to a downtown that has struggled for decades.

And now, after years of planning, the city’s most prime real estate is finally out to bid for developers.

“The kind of developer we’re looking for is someone who is used to doing complex, mixed use projects in downtown environments,” said community redevelopment agency director Amanda Thompson. “They are used to being in a more catalytic position ... They are very confident taking the lead role in what we hope will be the next round of major development in downtown.”

Related: Clearwater cuts $9 million from Imagine Clearwater waterfront park construction

Clearwater officials have planned to select one or multiple developers by April 30 to build a mix of residential, retail and possibly a hotel and museum on the three sites: the former City Hall property on Pierce Street, an adjacent lot and the site of the now-demolished Harborview Center on Osceola Avenue. Voters would have to approve the lease or sale of the City Hall and Harborview properties to a developer a referendum planned for March 2022.

To get their opportunity out to developers, Thompson said the city is launching a marketing campaign, including digital ads in industry publications and direct outreach to more than 60 developers across the country.

The city’s request for proposals document describes the downtown as “poised for transformation” and touts recent investments, like The Nolen and 1100 Apex apartment buildings, the city’s $6.5 million renovation of the Seminole Boat Ramp less than a mile north, the hub of tech businesses and two additional mixed use residential projects in development.

The 35-page document does not mention the Church of Scientology, which has its international headquarters on Fort Harrison Avenue and is downtown’s largest property owner. Limited liability companies tied to the church also bought about 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront between 2017 and 2019.

But today more than half of those 100 storefronts and lots remain empty, most on prime stretches of the business district where the city hopes to bring a revival in restaurants, shops and entertainment.

Related: Times Investigation: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

In May, the city invited 50 local and national developers to submit conceptual ideas for the three redevelopment sites in advance of this formal bidding process.

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Only two responded. Mercury Advisors founder Ken Stoltenberg, who has built multiple projects in Tampa’s Channel District, said he declined Clearwater’s invitation because the number of downtown properties that the Church of Scientology controls around the park creates “a huge unknown and that’s no place I want to go.”

Assistant City Manager Michael Delk said Clearwater cannot govern its actions on those perceptions of downtown and must take advantage of the properties it owns and controls, like the waterfront.

Because the request for letters was informal, Delk said he’s confident more developers will participate in the formal bid, especially given the untapped potential on the bluff.

“They are going to look that within eye-shot a mile away is one of the most successful public spaces in the country in Clearwater Beach,” Delk said “and I think some people may not get very sidetracked with what they consider to be our local circumstances when they find a willing and able partner.

“I will tell you the city of Clearwater is a willing and able partner.”